Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Walter Ritte, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 7, which includes Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Kahului, Paia, Haiku, Peahi, Hana, Kipahulu, Ulupalakua, Waiakoa, Pulehu, Pukalani and Makawao. The other Democratic candidates are Lynn DeCoite and Leo Caires.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for State Senate District 7

Walter Ritte
Party Democratic
Age 77
Occupation Executive director
Residence Molokai

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

None provided.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

Senate Senate District 7 consists of the rural areas of East Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe. We need to protect and advance the values and lifestyles of our rural areas, such as increasing  DLNR’s budget to carry out its mandated functions and broadening the community-based management programs of our natural resources that enable our communities to subsist through hunting and gathering.

Most of us have chosen to live in the country and I offer a needed voice to keep the country, country. The benefit of these initiatives extend beyond this district, by providing water, food and a cultural kipuka to other districts.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

Control is the operative word when it comes to tourism. Ensuring that tourists pay their share of the maintenance and adverse impacts the industry has on our infrastructure and public facilities.

Stop using taxpayer dollars on advertising to lure more tourists. Establish and enforce a carrying capacity for each island and for popular sites.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

We need to simultaneously increase the income of our residents and decrease expenses to alleviate their financial burdens. A first step was taken to increase the minimum wage this year, but we need to raise it to a living wage.

Exempt general excise taxes on essential products, such as food and prescription medication, increase taxes on luxury items, and increase land conveyance fees on foreign buyers.

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?

Not all Democrats are made the same. There are many gradients of Democrats, just as there are many gradients of Republicans. The problem is really the two-party system in America. In Hawaii, if there were a stronger Republican Party, perhaps many of those feigning to be a Democrat, yet not advancing the party platform, would join the more appropriate party.

The division, as I see it, is not between Democrats and Republicans, it’s between corporate-controlled elected officials and those who empower the community to be in control.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?

Yes. All of our counties have a ballot initiative process outlined in their charters. In 2014, I participated in the GMO Moratorium initiative and we were successful in obtaining over 24,000 signatures to get our proposal on the ballot. The electorate voted in strong support of our charter amendment.

This was key in mobilizing civic engagement in Maui County to truly effectuate change.  Not having a citizens initiative process at the state level effectively silences and disempowers our electorate. I am a strong proponent of democracy and inclusion, and believe this is one way to galvanize our people.

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

Yes. The governor is bound by term limits, judges are forced to retire at age 70, and all elected officials at the county level have term limits, yet legislators are allowed unlimited terms. In 2020, over 68% of the Maui County electorate voted to pass a charter amendment that would restrict the mayor to two four-year terms and council members five two-year terms. The sentiment shared was that the longer an elected official is in office, the more they learn to manipulate the system for personal gain.

Furthermore, without term limits, there is less incentive to uplift the next generations. Rather, we would continue to see self-preservation in re-election campaigns until someone is removed, retires or passes away.

This issue will ultimately be decided by our electorate, who have been denied that opportunity for far too long. I believe our electorate should all be given that opportunity to vote on this constitutional amendment.

7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

I am open to many of the new ideas being proposed. For example, I support the adoption of Senate and House Rules that require the Legislature to comply with State Sunshine laws, while proceeding to codify this requirement in statute.

The Sunshine Law correctly states, “In a democracy, the people are vested with the ultimate decision-making power,” that “governmental agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy,” therefore, “opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

When the Legislature enacted the Sunshine Law for every government body in 1975, it exempted itself from complying with the Sunshine Law and never corrected the hypocrisy.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

Legislators need to be mandated to spend more time in their respective districts with reports of the amount of time spent, accomplishments and solutions.

I believe that adopting Senate and House Rules that restrict legislative and committee leaders from soliciting or accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session, which include invitations to donate to their re-election campaigns that may feel like an invitation to “pay-to-play” and disenfranchise those who cannot afford to “pay,” is also a step in the right direction.

Finally, I support allocating sufficient funding to the Hawaii Ethics Commission, so that it may investigate all disclosures of financial conflicts of interest that were declared “no conflict” by committee chairs, the Senate president and the House speaker over the past five years. This would help to build back the trust and confidence of the public again.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

As a community organizer, I believe in being accessible to those in our community and would encourage more town hall and community zoom meetings, which provides for more transparency and two-way dialogues.

I would also advocate for those on all islands to have liaison offices in the districts.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

We need to realize that this is not a vast continent, and that we have limited natural resources, and therefore must not follow the lead of the American lifestyle and economic development schemes. We need to adopt the wisdom of thousands of years of successful occupation on these little dots of islands in the vast Pacific Ocean.

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